I-League 2018-19: Fitter and sharper East Bengal edge Mohun Bagan in a Kolkata derby devoid of genuine quality

The rivalry between the nativist population of Kolkata and the migrants from the now Bangladesh region of erstwhile Bengal is one of rich history, with immense cultural and political significance. Yet, nothing better epitomises this very friction than the years of tussle on the football pitch.

Indeed, the iconic tales of the “beautiful game” still echoes around the maidans of Kolkata and it is this passion for the game that has culminated into the city being hailed as the “Mecca of football” in India. However, as the final Kolkata derby of the I-league season unfolded on Sunday at the Salt Lake stadium in-front of a 60,000 odd partisan crowd, it was evident that the glory days of Kolkata football are long gone.

For the purist of the game, the encounter was a tough watch – characterised by sloppy defending, casual misplaced passes and aimless long balls. Yet, given what was at stake, it wouldn’t be fair to give the benefit of the doubt to the players for playing out a cagey match.

I-League 2018-19: Fitter and sharper East Bengal edge Mohun Bagan in a Kolkata derby devoid of genuine quality

The final Kolkata derby in the I-League between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan was characterised by misplaced passes and sloppy defending. Image Courtesy: AIFF

Coming into the game, Mohun Bagan were 9 points adrift of the surprise league leaders Chennai City and having lost the previous derby to East Bengal, it was their chance at redemption. East Bengal, on the other hand, were 8 points behind with a game in hand, which meant a victory would open up an outside shot at the title with 8 games to spare.

Given that a draw wouldn’t help either of the sides, it was anticipated that the match would more likely be an open encounter. Perhaps, the intent was also the same, but when it came to execution, the footballing quality ended up being quite a few levels behind.

Earlier in the day, Yuta Kinowaki’s injury during warm-up meant that the new man at the Mohun Bagan helm, Khalid Jamil, was called into decision making far sooner than he expected. He responded by drafting in Ugandan Henry Kisekka as a withdrawn attacking player in the starting XI. However, it wasn’t apparent until the first few minutes of the match that it was a move that didn’t do any favours to the Green and Maroon army.

Kisekka’s tendency to play further up the pitch resulted in Mohun Bagan having lesser bodies in midfield. Further, Mohun Bagan missed Yuta’s creativity deep in the middle of the park throughout the match and the team often seemed to solely rely on star man Sony Norde’s individual brilliance.

Jamil’s counterpart Alejandro Menendez proved to be a tactically superior manager on the day. In a game that hardly had any moment of awe, it was a refreshing sight to observe how East Bengal completely nullified the “Sony Norde effect”. Kassim Aidara was quick to make his presence felt with strong tackles on the Haitian playmaker, while full backs Lalram Chullova and Kamalpreet Singh kept a close check on Norde, despite his futile attempt to constantly switch flanks and unsettle the East Bengal defence. To make matters worse for Mohun Bagan, Pinto Mahata, the pacy wide-man coming back from a hamstring injury, was largely subdued through out the game as East Bengal successfully clipped off Mohun Bagan’s wingplay.

As the clock tickled down, however, there was hardly any notable pattern of offensive play from either of the sides with both teams relying on aimless long balls when playing out of defence. It was evident that a goal would either come from a defensive mistake or a moment of individual brilliance. In the end, it was a mix of both, as in the 35th minute, Eze Kingsley failed to deal with a seemingly harmless ball, and the ever promising Jobby Justin pounced on the error to set up Spaniard Jamie Santos Colado, who made no mistake finishing past a hapless Shilton Paul at goal. It would be a tough pill to swallow for the Nigerian centre back Kingsley, who was incidentally, sent off in the previous derby.

However, Mohun Bagan should have been level right around the hour mark from a corner which resulted, once again, from a defensive lapse — a heavy back-pass nowhere near the intended target of goalkeeper Rakshit Dagar. It could have proved costly for East Bengal as Eze’s header from the corner ricocheted off the bar, with Darren Caldeira and Dipanda Dicka, combining to somehow scramble the ball inside the net.

The Cameroonian striker claimed the goal and wheeled away in celebration, only to realise that the linesman had made a late call to flag offside. Television replays showed both the players were clearly onside – summing up the referring performance as incredibly mediocre, ironically in tandem with the overall footballing performance on the field,

That was just about it for Mohun Bagan, as their star-studded line up failed to create any clear-cut chances for the remainder of the match. East Bengal did have their opponent’s offensive play in control, but going forward they did not create much either.

However, there was still some time for another Jobby Justin moment in a Kolkata derby, as the man from Kerala put the final nail in the Bagan coffin, outjumping his marker to head home a Lalrindika Ralte corner, bringing up his eighth goal of the season, in the 75th minute. As the East Bengal faithful readied to light up the streets of Kolkata with the Red and Gold pyro flares, their beloved 25-year-old target man was slowly but steadily creating a strong case for his candidature in the national setup.

Looking back, Alejandro’s decision to bring on Brandon Vanlalremdika at the later stages of the match – a seemingly offensive move while his team was still leading – helped East Bengal control possession comparatively better. Perhaps it was a lesson learnt from the previous derby, when East Bengal invited pressure on them at the dying stages, which nearly cost them the 3 points.

In the end, it was game of fine margins – the Red and Gold brigade registering a 2-0 victory and thus a league double over their arch rivals after 15 years. However, delving deeper into the intricacies of the match, it was perhaps the fitness of the East Bengal team that helped them win a match that could be termed scrappy at best. A lot of the scrambles ended in East Bengal’s favour, and it would be unfair to not credit them for their relentless effort to hold on to their lead. Carlos Nodar Paz’s arrival as the Fitness trainer from Europe seemed to have had a significant effect on the East Bengal players.

Indeed, even at the interval, Nodar was pushing the substitutes to go through well-crafted drills while the Mohun Bagan counterparts were seen merely warming up. One can only wonder whether a professional approach to fitness has had a positive impact on this East Bengal team.

In 2007, Sepp Blatter witnessed a closely contested Kolkata Derby during his first visit to India as the then FIFA president. Following the match, he termed India as the “sleeping giant” of world football. A lot has happened since then – the national team can now think of at least competing against the continent’s elites. Yet, going purely by this match, one could be led to believe that nothing much has progressed since then. Off the field, with the league system in India set to be restructured next year, it remains to be seen what fate holds for these two heavyweights of Kolkata football. As for now, they would not want to face the risk of being called the “sleeping giants” of Indian football.

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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2019 10:08:27 IST

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